Monday, April 06, 2009

Simply a Matter of Conscience?

A cover story in Sunday's Chicago Tribune left me unsettled all day, in that "Is there any way to name this problem?" sort of way. (I get like that. Gotta find a way to articulate the problem, or what's behind the issue.) What was the problem/issue the story dealt with? Catholics (couples and doctors) using IVF as an answer to infertility. Truly, a case where angels fear to tread, and all the more, a consecrated virgin! But there's more to this than the matter of procreation, and that is what I was trying to articulate to myself yesterday , as in "what's really going on here?" Because it's not really just about couples wanting children and businesses springing up to make their dreams come true for a price.
In what I write now, I in no way intend to diminish the suffering of couples facing unexpected infertility, nor do I question their sincerity in attempting to resolve the issue conscientiously. I do not doubt, either, the sincerity of the doctors who put their skills at the service of these couples. But sincerity and good will do not guarantee that people are walking a path of moral truth, or that their decisions cannot be challenged on any number of grounds. And it is not right for the couple (or the doctor) to use the genuinely beautiful desire for a child, or to use the child himself/herself as a sort of sublime shield from any possible questioning (much less any call to conversion!).
The couple and the doctor in the story gave a nod to Church teaching, admitting that they were violating it, but the real story was their various approaches to justifying themselves. In dealing with infertility and the possible ways to address it, the couple deliberately kept their parish priest in the dark about their considering IVF, because they knew he would tell them that the Church would not "allow" it. Not only is that distressingly immature ("Daddy says 'No!'"), it seems not to have entered their minds that the Church might actually have something to contribute to their full awareness, allowing them to make a more enlightened and more truly upright decision. Since the honest search for truth is part of a genuinely "conscientious" decision, we can ask if this couple really "followed their conscience" while failing to incorporate any adult inquiry as to the grounds for what they understood Church teaching to be. Wouldn't they have been surprised to know that there are approaches to infertility that are open to Catholics? And wouldn't they have been relieved to know that these legitimate approaches are more effective than IVF, more affordable, and result in no untimely deaths at all?
Why has a Catholic doctor devoted her professional life to bringing about human life in a petri dish, knowing that eight embryos will die for every child successfully brought to birth? Knowing that some parents will order the nonimplanted embryos to be destroyed--and that she, the doctor through whose efforts those nameless lives were brought into the world, will be the instrument of their deaths? (The doctor in the story admitted that this is sad, but that "it is not my philosophy," as if this excused her of any responsibility.) Does this doctor, and others like her, think of the great need for medical practitioners who will diagnose and treat the underlying reasons for infertility, instead of mechanically seeking to override the problems (which will still remain, despite IVF)? (There isn't a single Illinois NaPro/Fertility Care doctor listed on their website, and yet how many Catholic doctors and other health professionals in Chicago alone are engaged in IVF?)
Of course, an unstated issue isn't simply that the couple didn't trust their pastor to be pastoral with them. It's that they don't even know what their real relationship with the Church is. They think that the Church is a part of their lives; a part that they can then give more or less time, value and weight to; that their relationship with the Church is theirs to determine. They don't know that in reality, they are a part of the Church: they belong to the Church the way the limbs and organs belong to a body. The body in its wholeness reveals the vocation of each member.
And that brings up the issue of vocation. I noticed that for the couple and for the doctor, references to God were pretty much limited to the expression of pious hopes that they were "doing the will of God." In other words, that God would agree with what they had already decided and done. There's no indication there that Church might be a mediator in the search for "the will of God," much less a participant in it. Besides, God's will is manifest in many ways, including the situation itself that we find ourselves in. As a religious with a vow of obedience who sometimes has to accept situations that I do not understand fully or agree with, I am well acquainted with the frustration of worthy and beautiful hopes, and with sadness over lost potential. (The more potential one has, the greater the possibility that some of it will be left undeveloped.) But sometimes those frustrating situations are frustrating precisely because they hold within them a different call than the one we were looking for. That's why the daily examen is so important: so we learn to see what is hidden in the unlikeliest situations, and find God there. That doctor, for example, could be using her skills in a much more effective way by actually healing infertility permanently, rather than creating work-arounds that involve such a high loss of life and leave the couple dependent on technology for the future. The couple, too, could have benefited from spiritual direction that would have helped them seek the broader "will of God" for their whole marriage (and maybe also deal with the spiritual issues raised by the infertility they were suffering through) while still pursuing legitimate avenues in their desire for a child.
Perhaps a real reckoning with "the will of God" would be good for both the couple and the doctor, and (in this Holy Week) for each of us. God's will isn't always what we want it to be; I suspect that is why so many of us (raise your hand if you never did this) prefer to act first and ask pardon later, when the much-desired prize is firmly in our grasp.
Jesus in Gethsemane gives us a very real example of reckoning with God's will. And look what he was facing! He makes his own will very clear: "take this cup away from me." But only "if it is possible." "Your will, not mine be done."


Ruth Ann said...

Sister Anne, thank you for this extensive reflection. I have also experienced that "unsettled" feeling when I hear of Catholics using IVF. Your explication is wonderful!

xaipe said...

Thanks, Ruth Ann. I admit to feeling a bit uncertain about having posted it. I am so analytical that I fear really ignoring the human element, or diminishing it, which is not my intention at all... Mostly, I feel so frustrated that even now "mass media" like the Tribune can still determine the language and arguments that shape how issues are dealt with.

Karen said...

My husband and all of his siblings were adopted from Catholic Charities. I've always imagined that it must have been a comfort to his mother to know that he would be raised in a Catholic family. I've always thought she'd be happy if she could know what happened to Chris, or if she could see my son, her grandchild.

I don't know what would have happened to Chris, or any of his siblings, if my in-laws hadn't chosen adoption as a remedy to the heartbreak of infertility.

I've never met an adoptive parent who thinks they love their children less than they'd love them if they were birth children. Seems to me that it's a good and Godly response.

IVF, and anything else that puts man in the position of playing God, gives me the willies. (I think that's the technical term.)